India and Neighbors
Beginnings of Buddhism
p. 29-54 Buddhist Art
Last week we focused on the Hindu
deities, their avatars and attributes. We
also discussed the stories that informed
the artwork while looking at the social
and political, as well as, religious
It’s important to note that Hindu beliefs,
via the Vedas, predate Buddhism by at
least 1500 years. However, we have no
artwork of the gods until later.
Actually, Buddhist art came before Hindu
art. So, similarities exist because of the
earlier Indus Valley connections and
This map shows where, in India, the
Buddha lived during his life.
You can see that now, Buddhism has
moved to other parts of Asia.
Within Asian history, no other movement,
religion or event has equaled the degree
to which Buddhism has affected nearly
every corner of Asia.
During its 2500-year history, we see
change, persecution and integration as
Buddhist development moved
geographically across the continents.
This map shows the movement of the
different sects or directions within
Buddhism that we discussed the week
One of the keys to success was the ability
of the faith to adapt and evolve within
different cultures and their existing
This was done by harmonizing with earlier
practices, by claiming a common origin
with native gods and by emphasizing
aspects of Buddhism that paralleled
The traditional dates of the Buddha are
c. 563-483 BCE. We know he was a prince,
probably from the Nepal region.
Note: area on previous map.
Notice in the chart on the previous
page how few Buddhist live in India
today compared to other Asian
While Buddhism began there, it is
not the predominant belief system
now. Note the places were there are
many more people.
During his life the Buddha was a great teacher
of ethics. We do not know that he claimed
religious leadership or attempted to form a
His world was undergoing rapid and violent
political and social change so that his
teachings must have become a source of
great moral strength to the people who knew
It was a time in India when the merchant
class was growing and there was an
increasing preoccupation with economic and
political power. As a result, people felt their
freedoms being restricted.
There were many philosophers at this time,
including the Buddha, who sought liberation
through spiritual means.
The two main spiritual directions at this time
The Brahmans—Orthodox, traditional rituals,
based on the Upanishads. Lived as ascetics.
This was their cast.
The Shramanas—wandering spiritual leaders
who left society and lived together in the
forest. All rejected a supreme god—Bramah.
No cast system here. This is the group
Shakyamuni joined when he renounced his
princely life .
Eventually, the Buddha started one of 5
schools of the Shramana.
One of the others was Jainism, which is still
existent today as one of the major Indian
religious systems. It teaches extremely strict
It was two centuries after Buddhism had
been in existence when a very powerful
monarch Ashoka (who ruled from 272-
231 BC) stimulated visual imagery.
Ashoka, once converted, erected edicts
carved on stone and wood pillars. From
Bengal to Afghanistan and into the south,
pillars were used that followed earlier
Indian beliefs…the axis mundi ideals that
were first expressed in the rig Veda.
So, once again we see an already existing
idea– the axis mundi (center of the
world)-– being appropriated by
Buddhism. It makes sense since people
already knew what the pillars meant.
An Ashoka pillar erected in support of
At this time the lion was a symbol of
Ashoka (who ruled from 272-231 BC) was the third
ruler of the Indian Mauryan Empire. It was the
largest ever in India and one of the largest of his
When he first began his rule he was considered an
efficient but very cruel leader. The story goes that
after what is considered one of the most brutal and
bloody wars in history, Ashoka issued an edict
expressing regret for the suffering his army inflicted.
He vowed to renounce war and embrace the
It is not exactly clear that he was referring to
Buddhism when he used the word, dharma, but he
did perpetuate Buddhist sites and texts. So, he’s
given credit for unifying India under Buddhism.
An Ashoka pillar erected in
support of Buddhism.
At this time the lion was a
symbol of the Buddha.
Ashoka began to issue one of the most
famous edicts in the history of government
and instructed his officials to carve them on
rocks and pillars, in the local dialects and
simply so people could understand.
In the rock edicts, Ashoka talks about
religious freedom and religious tolerance, he
instructs his officials to help the poor and the
elderly, establishes medical facilities for
humans and animals, commands obedience
to parents, respect for elders, generosity for
all priests and ascetic orders (no matter their
creed), orders fruit and shade trees to be
planted and also wells to be dug along the
roads so travelers can benefit from them.
An Ashoka edict inscribed in
Greek and Aramaic.
Prior to Ashoka, Buddhism was a
relatively minor force in India. He
turned Buddhism into the State
religion, using it as a way to
reduce social conflict.
Ashoka was not the only secular leader to
unify people under one belief.
In the West, this happened with Constantine
in 333 (about 500 years later) when he
unified the Roman Empire under Christianity.
This is an enormous marble head of the Roman
Emperor Constantine. Constantine had a vision in
which the Chi Rho symbol of Christ appeared in a
dream. He then had the symbol placed on the shields
of his army. When they won the battle, he imagined
it happened because Christ was on their side. He
subsequently deemed it the ‘official’ religion of the
Roman Empire. The rest is history. J
BUDDHISM—Back to the Pillars
Instead of figures of the Buddha or
portrayals of the stories of his lives, the early
pillars consisted of symbolic elements---
continuing ancient Indian pillar cults---with
their elaborate capitals (rendered in the
Earlier pillars with
lotus pedal capitals
were surmounted by
animals such as lions,
cows or elephants.
Note: a capital is a
sculptural element that
sits on top of a column.
Bull Capital, 3rd
century BC, Mauryan,
Lion capital of column erected by Ashoka at
Sarnath, India, ca. 250 BCE. Polished
sandstone, approx. 7 high. Archaeological
This is a picture of the remains of part
of the palace of Darius III, a powerful
king of the Persian Empire.
These tall columns seen in the center
were toped with animal images and
predate the ones in India by just a
couple of hundred years.
Side Note: The axis mundi (also cosmic axis,
world axis, world pillar and center of the
world) is a symbol representing the point of
connection between sky and earth. It offers
means of travel and correspondence
between the two realms. It is also the place
where the four compass directions unite,
allowing treasure from heaven to be
disseminated throughout the world. This
places it at the center of the world: at its
navel, the world's point of beginning.
Persepolis (royal audience hall in the
background), Iran, ca. 521–465 BCE
On top are some of the Persian capitals.
You can see some of these at the MET.
When Alexander the Great,
the Macedonian leader of the
Greek Army, destroyed the
Persian Empire in the late 4th
century BCE, the artists
traveled the Silk Road
looking for new patronage.
Here are pictures of two Persian Capitals
from Persepolis. Both are in museums.
The Silk Road had just opened
increasing contacts with India
as the road connected Rome
If you follow the red line from
the Arabian peninsula,
through Persia, you can see
how it intersects directly into
North Western India.
The artists found their new
patronage in the Mauryan
Empire in India bringing with
them, styles and ideas.
This map of the silk road shows both the land (in red) and sea
routes (in blue).
Ashoka’s capitals were the sites of
some of India’s first Buddhist
He also supported rock-cut building
resulting in the earliest Buddhist
Note names of cities and areas, in
particular Gandhara and Mathura.
We will be talking about them later
in this lecture.
Map of early India.
BUDDHIST –The Stupa
Much of the early Buddhist
imagery was associated with the
stupa, one of the three types of
architecture. The other two
associated with the monastery,
the residence hall and the hall of
worship (chaitya), which were
made to be entered.
The stupa was not made to be